New Arctic communication
The European Commission and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy have outlined the way forward for the EU's constructive engagement in the Arctic.
13 July 2012
Kristine Offerdal, IFS
The European Commission and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy have taken the EU one step further in the process of carving out an Arctic policy. A joint communication of 3 July entitled “Developing a European Union Policy towards the Arctic Region: progress since 2008 and next steps” holds no big surprises in terms of the direction of EU policy. The document confirms earlier policy, which is very much in line with the policies of Arctic states and which holds few controversial issues. The most important message is that the EU aims to step up its engagement in Arctic affairs. This includes a continued aim to become permanent observer of the Arctic Council andintensification of bilateral dialogues with Arctic states.
Between the lines, one can read a certain increased consciousness about EU interests in the region. These interests are not clearly defined, but they are linked to combating climate change, protecting the environment and at the same time ensuring sustainable development. The document also states that, being a major consumer, the EU has an interest in the resource policies of Arctic states. Moreover, it highlights the EU interest in shipping regimes for the region, underlining the principles of freedom of navigation and the right of innocent passage. Accordingly, somewhat more than earlier Arctic documents, this one identifies EU priorities and what the EU will do to meet these. More active engagement is one way of doing it and is one of three key words in the document.The other two key words, which serve to legitimize engagement, are knowledge and responsibility.
Knowledge refers to the EU contribution to Arctic affairs in areas such as technological know-how, developing Arctic monitoring from space and funding of Arctic-relevant research to address climate and environmental challenges. The term fits well with the interests and views of Arctic states. It is widely recognized that new knowledge about the changes the region is going through is needed. The EU already makes a significant contribution in this area. The new communication underlines and seeks to target and fortify this contribution.
On responsibility, the document argues that the Arctic offers challenges and opportunities that will affect the lives of Europeans for future generations. This, the Commission and High Representative argue, requires a responsible EU contribution to the region, by funding regional programs and promoting safe and sustainable management and use of resources. There is nothing controversial about these points. However, under the heading of promoting safe and sustainable management and use of resources, there is a paragraph that highlights the EU interest in the policies of resource developments of Arctic states. If we see this in combination with the aim to engage more actively multilaterally and bilaterally, we are seeing the contours of a message by the EU as a major stakeholder with specific interests that it will pursue i.a. by engaging more actively with Arctic states. Although EU views on challenges and necessary means to ensure sustainable development hardly differ from those of Arctic states, one would expect an automatic response in Arctic states along the lines that they are in a position to manage their natural resources without interference from outside actors. However, this has so far not been and will probably not be the reactions from Arctic states. The overall impression from reading the EU communication is that the EU aims to assist and support, but not meddle in other states’ affairs. In the document the EU confirms its long communicated view that Arctic inter-state relations in the region are based on the existing international legal order, notably the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. There is nothing new in this, but it is important for the EU in its dialogue with Arctic stakeholders to reiterate that the EU has the same view of mechanisms for cooperation in the region as Arctic states, due to the earlier debate about whether a special Arctic Treaty was needed or not, and perhaps also since EU interests and desire to engage more actively is now more clearly communicated. Therefore, it is not by coincidence that the EU, as it has done before, underlines that Arctic states play a primary role in the region.
The EU takes great care to acknowledge the special needs of indigenous populations. Moreover, the aim to engage more actively appears to be motivated not only by EU interests, but by what appears as genuine interest in contributing to meeting the various challenges that the region is facing. As Norway has already done, other Arctic states will most likely agree with the views put forward by the EU in the communication and welcome the EU initiative to engage more actively. Then it remains to be seen whether this will be followed up in practice, for example with inclusion of the EU in the Arctic Council as permanent observer, or through intensified bilateral High North dialogueswith Norway.
In sum, the new communication confirms and intensifies the EU policy towards the Arctic. It continues on the path of the 2011 Parliament report, emphasizing the importance of combating climate change and meeting environmental challenges, but at the same time giving emphasis to sustainable development. Throughout the years since the 2008 joint report by the Commission and High Representative on climate change and international security, EU thinking on the Arctic has approached that of the Arctic states, leaving less importance to geopolitical issues and more to finding ways of cooperating to meet common challenges. In light of the EU effort to avoid coming forward as an interferer, and instead being accepted as a legitimate partner in Arctic affairs, the new communication strikes a good and necessary balance between EU contributions on the one hand and interests on the other hand.